from the Introduction by Joan Acocella
The English novelist Angela Carter is best known for her 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber,” which is a kind of modernization of the classic European fairy tales. This does not mean that Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood chews gum or rides a motorcycle but that the strange things in those tales – the werewolves and snow maidens, the spider-hung caves and liquefying mirrors – are made to live again by means of a prose informed by the wonders of cinema and psychoanalysis and Symbolist poetry. In Carter’s “Beauty and the Beast,” retitled “The Tiger’s Bride,” the beast doesn’t change into a beauty. The beauty is changed into a beast, a beautiful one, by means of one of the more memorable sex acts in twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the heroine is ushered, naked, into the beast’s chamber. He paces back and forth: "I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not. Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me. A tremendous throbbing, as of the engine that makes the earth turn, filled the little room; he had begun to purr. . . . He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!” And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur."
Imagine that: a great, warm, wet, abrasive tongue licking off skin after skin, down to the bottommost skin, which then sprouts shiny little hairs.
Because Carter took on fairy tales, and also because she favored a outré look – she liked long, flowing skirts and in her late years sported a great, disorderly mane of grey hair (Andrew Motion said she looked like “someone who’d been left out in a hurricane”) -- she was sometimes slotted as a “white witch,” the sort of person who reads Tarot cards and believes that the earth speaks to her. Therefore it was good to see Edmond Gordon, in his “The Invention of Angela Carter” (Oxford), the first full-scale biography of the writer, reclaim her from the fairy kingdom and place her within what sounds like a real life. Unsurprisingly, we find out that the white witch cared about her advances and sales and reviews.
Carter was born in 1940 and grew up in a quiet, middle-class suburb of London, the second child of a strait-laced mother, Olive – she turned off the TV if a divorced actor came on the screen – and a father, Hugh, who was the night editor of London’s Press Association. Both parents spoiled Angela outrageously. She was crammed with treats, bombarded with kittens and story books. Her mother never put her to bed until after midnight, when Hugh got back from work – she wanted her company -- and even then, the child was often allowed to stay up. Hugh brought home long rolls of white paper from the office for her, and as her parents chatted, she wrote stories in crayon.
She grew to be a tall, pudgy child, with a stammer. Between those disadvantages and extreme shyness, which she covered with a frosty manner, she had few friends. Olive redoubled her attentions. Angela was not allowed to dress herself, or to go to the bathroom alone. Finally, she rebelled, went on a diet, and changed from a fat, obliging girl to skinny, rude girl. She slouched around in short skirts and fishnet stockings, smoking and saying offensive things to her mother.
She was a good student, though. The 1944 Butler Act, riding the same democratic wave as the American G. I. Bill, provided grants for gifted children from regular backgrounds to go to elite private schools. Carter, as an adult, had a theory that the Butler Act created Britain’s first real intelligentsia, a group of people who had no interest in using education to maintain the class system but who simply wanted to operate in a world of ideas. If so, she was one of them. She went to a demanding school, Streatham Hill & Clapham High, and did well in the subjects she cared about, above all English and French. (Her French teacher loaned her a record of a Comédie Française actor reading Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and thereby made her a linguistic high-flyer for life.) Her teachers urged her to apply to Oxford. Olive, hearing that, pronounced it an excellent idea and said that she and Hugh would take an apartment in Oxford to be close to her. Angela thereupon dropped all thought of going to university. Marriage, she realized, would be her only way of escaping her parents.
Through her father’s connections, she got a job as a reporter, and soon, while working on a story about the new folk music movement – this was now the late fifties -- she met a serious-minded young man, Paul Carter, an industrial chemist who moonlighted as a producer and seller of English folk-song records. Paul was apparently the first man to take a romantic interest in Angela. Or, as she put it, “I finally bumped into somebody who would . . . have sexual intercourse with me.” But Paul insisted that they be engaged first, and so Angela found herself, at twenty, a married woman.
They seem to have been happy at the beginning. Paul taught Angela to love English folk music and thereby gave her a great gift. The folk iconography, in time, would offer her an escape hatch from the rather grey realism dominant in the fiction of that period. Folklore also presented her with a set of emotions that, while releasing her, eventually, from sixties truculence, nevertheless felt true
, not genteel. “Few nations have spent quite as long as England in creating an official mask,” she wrote in 1962: "What are we like? Oh, you know. Reserved. Imperturbable. Anti-romantic. Practical. . . . But study our folk heritage, our great and still living heritage of rough and ready poetry, and there is the authentic face. The man who emerges from English folk song is as merry as a cricket, as lecherous as a goat, a Gargantua in appetites and mirth, with a pulsing vein of lyric poetry in his body."
This is somewhat cheerier than she would ever be, or than English folk song was. Still, it pointed her in a hopeful direction.
But soon the marriage was failing. Paul was subject to engulfing depressions. Sometimes he and Angela barely spoke for days. She felt swollen with unexpressed emotion. “I want to touch him all the time, with my hands & my mouth,” she wrote in her diary. “(Poor luv, it annoys him.)” The note of sarcasm here is interesting. Through some miracle, Angela, who had little sexual self-confidence – she once described herself as “a great, lumpy, butch cow, . . . titless and broadbeamed” – did not allow Paul’s withdrawal to demoralize her. She wanted to save herself. On her twenty-second birthday, her Uncle Cecil, knowing that she was unhappy, invited her to lunch at an Italian restaurant and told her to apply to university. As she recalled, he said to her, “If you’ve got a degree you can always get a job. You can leave your husband any time you want.”
She took his advice. The couple had recently moved to Bristol, for Paul’s work, and she enrolled in the university there, studying English. The Bristol department was not an ideal situation for her, because, like many English departments in mid-twentieth century Britain, it was dominated by the principles of F. R. Leavis, who was intent on rescuing English fiction’s “great tradition” from the showy, the sentimental, and the bizarre. Carter, who called Leavis’s followers the “eat up your broccoli” school of criticism, managed to hide out in medieval studies, which she loved. She also encountered Freud, whose writings gave her a quasi-scientific support for the world of shock, dream, and eros that she now saw as the realm of art. Within a few years, too, she became enamored with the Surrealists and learned to feel, like them, that the goal of art was not truth, as the Leavisites would have it, but the marvelous, or that the marvelous was
All of this fed into her developing feminism. She was to become an ardent feminist, but not an orthodox one. Her main concern was not with women’s being granted justice; she hated the idea of put-upon, suffering women and implied that they had it coming, by being such weaklings. What she wanted for women was that they should seize what they needed – power, freedom, sex – and she saw no fundamental difference between men and women that should prevent women from having those things. To use the current language, gender, to her, was a social construction. As she wrote to a friend, "Somebody asked me who my favorite women writers were the other day, meaning, I guess, some kind of writers who expressed a specifically feminine sensibility – I said Emily Bronte, who’s pure butch, and cursed myself afterwards because the greatest feminine writer who’s ever lived is Dostoevsky, followed closely by Herman Melville. . . . And D. H. Lawrence is infinitely more feminine than Jane Austen, if one is talking about these qualities of sensitivity, vulnerability and perception traditionally ascribed by male critics to female novelists. . . . D. H. Lawrence’s tragedy is that he thought he was a man."
I don’t know what she means about Dostoevsky, but her general statement should sound familiar in our day of fluid gender definitions.
Energized by her discoveries, she became a bustling presence in her department and the co-editor of its literary magazine. In this stapled-together publication the best items were the poems of one Rankin Crowe, which turned out to be a nom de plume for Angela Carter. (It is a misspelled version of the name of a cowboy whose self-published 1970 memoir, “Rankin Crow and the Oregon County,” she must have read. She liked cowboys. She went to see Sergio Leone westerns.) Especially striking is a poem called “Unicorn.” In the Middle Ages there was a belief that the only way to catch a unicorn was to send a virgin, alone, into the woods. The unicorn, spying the girl, would come and lay his head in her lap. Such a virgin is the speaker in Carter’s poem, but she is not a tender little thing. She is naked, with breasts “like carrier bags” and “curious plantations of pubic hair.” The unicorn is drawn to her by “the fragrance of her moist / garden plot.” He will be sorry. “I have sharp teeth inside my mouth,” she says. “Inside my dark red lips.”
At the same time, Carter was producing the first novels that she would be willing to publish. She wrote at a furious speed, turning out narratives of violence that were sometimes layered with comedy, sometimes not. In “Shadow Dance” (1966), her first novel, a man named Honeybuzzard carves up the face of an annoyingly virtuous girl, Ghislaine. (After she gets out of the hospital he finishes the job, strangling her and leaving her naked corpse in an attic.) A year after that came “The Magic Toyshop,” in which the orphaned heroine is sent to live with her uncle, a sadistic puppeteer. In one scene he forces her to play Leda to a mechanical swan. Her next two efforts were in a similar vein. There are excellent things in all these books, but there is also a strong suggestion that Carter is still trying to drive her mother crazy. Even when the material is not shocking, the treatment is often self-indulgent. An editor once forwarded to her a reader’s report describing a novel of hers as “a queer little book.” Carter, always lovably forthright, replied that the person who wrote that “put her finger on my weakest spot, which is a tendency to a batty kind of whimsicality.” She said she was sure she would work out some satisfactory solution.
She did. In 1969, Carter received a Somerset Maugham Award, worth five hundred pounds, to be used for foreign travel. She decided that she would grant herself an old wish, to go to Japan. Paul stayed home. “I arrived by air, in the dark,” she wrote. “When night descended over the ocean, many unfamiliar stars sprang out in the sky; as we approached land, there began to blossom below me such an irregular confusion of small lights it was difficult to be certain if the starry sky lay above or below me. So the airplane ascended or descended into an electric city where nothing was what it seemed at first and I was absolutely confused.” I see her there, dizzy, suspended between two blankets of light. It is like a conversion experience, and, writing two years after the event, she surely knew that.
Copyright © 2018 by Angela Carter; Introduction by Joan Acocella. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.